Learn how to talk the reformoid way

24th September 2004 at 01:00
When Philip Pullman took us into a parallel world, he was under instructions from the gods of fiction to make his world internally consistent.

If Pullman's armoured bears are scarily wonderful because of their fiercely bear-like qualities, then it would not make much sense to have them suddenly behaving like Christopher Robin's Pooh. A stream of believable but slightly odd language is a vital tool for a writer here.

The same is true of education ministers. There is probably a fans' website somewhere for Mins-of-Ed freaks who swap quotes and reflect on the time, say, when we were supposed to believe that simultaneously both the minister and the gloriously idiotic hero of the Goon Show were both called Eccles (true).

Another key to the success of this fantasy world is tone. Just as different scriptwriters for long-running series like Star Trek have to keep Vulcans sounding serious and vulcanoid, so the many scriptwriters for education ministers down through the ages have had to keep them sounding optimistic and reformoid.

Every time nurseries, schools, universities and adult education have been shaken up, the spokespeople of the parallel world have lectured us on how things were going to be better.

Even as I write this, civil servants and spin doctors are writing the script for Education Secretary Charles Clarke to explain to the Labour party conference why and how upping student fees, tinkering with testing, founding city academies, supporting faith schools, and changing A-levels (again) is all progress.

Some of the old stars of previous episodes crop up today. Channel 4's recent re-run of a 1960s secondary modern in the second That'll Teach 'Em series was prefaced by footage of the humanoids of the time proclaiming their glories: girls making cakes, boys mending cars.

It is a pity we did not also see the humanoids beavering away at the ministry of education, explaining why intelligence tests administered at the age of 11 were a perfect way to select children for different kinds of education and therefore for different kinds of life.

It might also have been nice to see the super-humanoids poring over the figures that ensured the money spent on each grammar school pupil was twice as much as that spent on a sec-mod one. But as the sec-mod proportion was only two-thirds of all children in education, this was thought not to matter too much.

All that was in the glorious early Sixties, of course, before the later part of the decade which the Blairoid identified as being so disastrous for civilisation as we know it.

In 50 years, when we look back at the jerky images of Clarke and his sidekick, schools standards minister David Miliband, talking to the Labour party delegates in next week's episode, I wonder what lines we will find as laughable, what omissions we will spot.

Miliband, whose motionless hair and glasses made him perfect casting, will be thought of as a mix of the comic and sinister. He adopted the clipped speech-pattern of Olivier's Richard III when we heard him championing the underprivileged and the underachieving.

We were almost seduced into thinking that this was a decent man, but only if we allowed ourselves to forget that the New Labour army put in place many sophisticated but concealed methods of school selection that produced the very thing Miliband said he was against: underprivilege and lack of achievement. Nice dissembling, we will say.

We will see that Clarke's performance was a lift from Pullman's armoured bears in its mix of aggression and apparent sense of honour. Colleagues in the children's book world tell me that Clarke is deeply concerned by the fact that children no longer read whole books any more. But in 50 years we will see the director's cut, showing for the first time the secret meetings Clarke had with authors and literati where he got everyone on board for his "initiatives" on the literature front, while leaving in place the torture chambers and testing apparatus that ensured there was no time for reading books anyway.

Later, we will watch with horror his Shock and Awe brigades mowing through students' bank accounts, and establishing Pools of Despair amazingly close to his own Centres of Excellence. They were not called that of course - they were called Beacon Pools.

Michael Rosen's latest book, This Is Not My Nose, is published by Penguin, pound;7.99

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